Some years ago my son Rob and I went kayaking on Lake George. My intention, after visiting the lake, had been to write a follow-up blog post on wind farms given there is a large one in the area. Then some dear friends told me that there was a wind farm to be built near where they live. When my friends unanimously started to protest about the building of the second largest wind farm in Australia, just near their place, I couldn’t at first understand what the problem was. For me wind farms have always been a somewhat romantic event. I associate them with Southern Cross wind pumps that were once such a feature of the Australian landscape. I also recall the demonstration wind pumps that used to whirl above the old RAS Sydney Showground, now Fox Studios and the brightly coloured novelty windmills on a stick that were so highly prized by children visiting the Show. Then of course there are the adventures of Don Quixote who tilted at the windmills of La Mancha.
- La Mancha’s windmills. (This is a file from the Wikimedia Commons)
I could never understand why the Don found La Mancha’s beautiful windmills so daunting but then I suppose his madness is all part of the romance as well. Then I went for a close-up look along the hills the east of Lake George. After this close-up encounter, I do understand why Don Quixote was so in awe of wind mills.
Encountering these wind turbines would have been as alien to the Don as the thought of travel to the moon. They are huge. One doesn’t really gain a sense of just how big they are from the vantage point of the Federal Highway far to the west. To my mind that still look rather romantic from that distance but the close up encounter soon dispels the romance.
My account of wind farms in neither Quixotic, being far from an impractical or romantic quest, nor is it a formal technical account of the obvious benefits of this form if renewable energy. Such accounts are easy to find, the Wind in the Bush site has copious technical detail and facts, and the NSW Wind Atlas provides a huge infographic that could make a great display for teachers.
Anyway back to the story. My first encounter with a wind farm was really just a by-product of another and far more romantic quest, the plan to paddle a kayak and a surf ski on Lake George.
Taking wind farms for granted
Actually I’ve always taken wind farms for granted, probably because I don’t live near them, well actually I live near a wind turbine, but more about that some other time. This encounter caused me to think more about them. I’d often gazed at the distant fields of wind generators that have been sprouting along the lake’s eastern edge for some years now. Although the initial reason for the wind farms is less inspiring, to supply power for Sydney’s dubious and extravagant desalination plant, their flourishing embellishes the eastern margins with kinetic sculptural forms that respond in unison to pulses of katabatic and anabatic energy. So when Australia’s Treasurer, toeing the party line the other week said that ”
“We have some beautiful landscapes in Australia, and frankly, putting up those towers is just to me, quite appalling in those places. . . I drive from Sydney to Canberra … to go to parliament, and I just look at those wind turbines around Lake George and I am just appalled.” I was amused.
The Prime Minister Tony Abbott also had something to say about them adding, “when I’ve been up close to these windfarms not only are they visually awful but they make a lot of noise.” When I read this I wondered if he had ever stood at the foot of one of these structures.
I just didn’t get the PM’s point. In fact when I had visited them on that visit to Lake George I took sound readings with my decibel meter that were consistent with these data.
Much has happened over the years since my first visit to Lake George but back then as my friends confronted the new wind farm, I recognised that they had a point, perhaps not the point they regarded as most important, infrasound, and not the point recently articulated by Hockey and Abbott, but the development my friends faced was on a landscape little changed since the end of the last ice age. This wind farm site was on land with immense heritage value simply because of its primal nature. So despite the excellent winds in the area, I think it was wrongly sited.
Coal subsidy blindness
Back then some of the other people who flocked to assist my friends brought more extreme views into play. One of the most absurd was that wind farms were simply uneconomic and couldn’t survive without massive subsidies.
I listened to the argument and thought about just how they were assessing the economics. Plainly they weren’t taking any of the environmental costs of coal-fired power stations into their cost calculations. Then I realised that they were probably climate change deniers. That didn’t worry me greatly as I realised they, along with the Liberal National Party government, would eventually be shown to be gravely mistaken and that they were also overlooking the enormous subsidies paid both directly and indirectly to fossil fuel based energy generation.
I looked for the figures. Meanwhile the clamour for an energy and export future based on coal rose.
A coal is good ideology captured the mainstream media, and only The Greens seemed to be sticking to the fossil fuel was attracting large subsidies argument.
The International Monetary Fund
Eventually I came across this report from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) How Large Are Global Energy Subsidies? This was an eye opener. It read in part:
- Energy subsidies damage the environment, causing more premature deaths through local air pollution, exacerbating congestion and other adverse side effects of vehicle use, and increasing atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations.
- Energy subsidies impose large fiscal costs, which need to be financed by some combination of higher public debt, higher tax burdens, and crowding out of potentially productive public spending (for example, on health, education, and infrastructure), all of which can be a drag on economic growth.
- Energy subsidies discourage needed investments in energy efficiency, renewables, and energy infrastructure, and increase the vulnerability of countries to volatile international energy prices.
- Energy subsidies are a highly inefficient way to provide support to low-income households since most of the benefits from energy subsidies are typically captured by rich households.
The IMF report went on the explain that:
- Among different energy products, coal accounts for the biggest subsidies, given its high environmental damage and because (unlike for road fuels) no country imposes meaningful excises on its consumption.
- Most energy subsidies arise from the failure to adequately charge for the cost of domestic environmental damage—only about one-quarter of the total is from climate change—so unilateral reform of energy subsidies is mostly in countries’ own interests, although global coordination could strengthen such efforts.
- The fiscal, environmental, and welfare imp acts of energy subsidy reform are potentially enormous. Eliminating post-tax subsidies in 2015 could raise government revenue by $2.9 trillion (3.6 percent of global GDP), cut global CO2 emissions by more than 20 percent, and cut pre-mature air pollution deaths by more than half. After allowing for the higher energy costs faced by consumers, this action would raise global economic welfare by $1.8 trillion (2.2 percent of global GDP).
Then in the same week the G7 meeting agreed to phase out the use of fossils fuels by the end of the century.
So that was it. Now our country’s leadership has been revealed as wildly out of step with global developments, not that this was a new idea for me it was simply quite affirming to have my concerns confirmed by such powerful global institutions.
The New Generation of Wind Turbines
Also heartening has been the release of this report on a new era of wind generators employing the Venturi effect.
In this system wind is:
- captured at the top of a funnel
- funneled through the system
- concentrated and further accelerated in the Venturi effect
- delivered to the turbine/generators to convert the accelerated wind to electrical power
- released through a diffuser and returned to the environment